Often the journey can be tedious, and a voice from the back seat whines, “Are we there yet?”
Dabo Swinney looks for opportunities to make the journey fun, occasions for players to cut loose with unfiltered glee before returning to the grind, the weekly routine of preparing for the next opponent.
This week, it’s N.C. State. The metrics project Clemson as the favorite. Undefeated and positioned to be in the meat of the conversation for a College Football Playoff invitation, Swinney presses the team with his philosophy, including the routine that doesn’t vary.
“I just know for me, personally, guys get bored. I think it needs to be fun,” Swinney said Tuesday.
The goal wasn’t 7-0, and you can’t be 8-0 or 12-0 or reach the playoffs without winning this game. And if they win again, they dance. He dances, and a video goes viral because, as a dancer, Swinney is a good football coach. “I want them to have a great experience. I want them to have fun.
“The average person out there has no clue of the type of stress these guys deal with on a daily basis. Maybe stress isn’t the right word, but just pressure, expectations, demands. They’re kids. They’re young people,” he said. “It isn’t a complaint. It’s just the way it is, and I love to see them have some fun and to let their hair down and to celebrate with their teammates when they achieve the goal.”
Winning has limited the “bad mail,” yet Swinney knows “how quickly that turns on you” if Clemson trips on it hubris Saturday.
“Every day is a gift,” he said. “Just enjoy today, win today. Don’t get caught up in all the other stuff. If you achieve your objective on Saturday, hey, let’s have some fun with it.
“At some point, you’ve got to let these guys have some fun, then refocus it on Monday.”
Winning at Miami attracted broad attention in college football circles, but Swinney cautions that N.C. State looms as a “bloody your nose” experience. The Wolfpack (5-2, 1-2 in the ACC) have the nation’s No. 3 defense and an offense built on the run. Clemson’s defense is No. 4 and among the best in short-yardage and run zone situations.
“This is a complete football team playing with confidence,” he said of the Wolfpack. “And I think their environment is one of the best places in the conference.”
Clemson’s last loss to a team not ranked in the AP poll was to N.C. State in 2011. The Tigers have won their past 10 games, and the 7-0 start is the fifth in school history.
“Just look and see how many people haven’t been able to do that. That’s hard,” Swinney said. “That level of consistency is rare.”
Swinney also pointed out that during the streak Clemson has a 10-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
“We’re not some juggernaut,” he said. “We’ve got to play well.”
A midseason replacement himself, Swinney was a product of the pressure and expectations. This season, seven coaching jobs have been vacated, including Miami’s, where Al Golden was fired after Clemson’s 58-0 win at Miami.
“I hate it. It’s a sad state of the affairs,” Swinney said, blaming the callous, impersonal power of social media, the “shoot first and ask questions later” mentality. “People hired, fired and retired quick (he snapped his fingers) like that.
“Al Golden is as good a person as there is in the business,” Swinney said. “And he is a heck of a coach.”
Yet his obligation was to prepare the team to win its seventh game, to obliterate Miami.
“I want to kill the opponent,” he said. “I want to crush them.”
Mission accomplished, now dance.
Tigers vs. Wolfpack
Who: No. 3 Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC) at N.C. State (5-2, 1-2)
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh
Line: Clemson by 10